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Project Leadership, Episode 1: People Vs. Processes

In this series of posts on Project Leadership, I try to explore what it is, why it is worth and how to develop as a project leader – while not renouncing to the assets of a good project manager!
Take a few seconds and try to remember the most eye-striking skills of a great project manager whose achievements have particularly impressed you.
Planning? Analyzing? Scheduling? Maybe.
But more probably: communicating, motivating, listening, and all those kind of skills categorized as ‘soft’.
In other words, what made that project manager stand out as a real performer was not his/her pure ability to manage, but how he/she actually led.
Yet, what is a project leader? Why is leadership a crucial factor of performance for a project manager? And, even more important, how to become a project leader?

People Vs. Processes

There are tons of books related to leadership, and twice as many definitions of what leadership is. However a common factor is the overall orientation of leadership towards people, by opposition to orientation to processes (or tasks by extension). « People » include the person of the leader self –indeed, the journey to foster leadership starts with developing sound self-awareness and self-management ability.
Project Leadership is then the transposition of a leader posture and behaviors in the tumultuous world of projects. It leads to consider tasks and daily business from a people-oriented perspective. However, unlike other business areas, Project Management is essentially defined and designed to be a sequence of processes to be applied or adapted to ensure efficiency and common language between project actors. Therefore, Project Management has a natural trend to orientate all project parties towards processes.
If you are managing a project, you can ask yourself: do I coordinate resources relying on procedures and project management plans, or rather lead people based on individual and team motivation? Am I inclined to empower my project team, or rather to control that assigned tasks are timely achieved? Do I focus on establishing and maintaining an efficient project organization, or do I prefer to share my vision of the project to enable the team finding a purpose to it?
Indeed, there is no right or wrong answer– and for each question, you may check both! But at least, as a first step to increase project leadership awareness it is worth to be aware of that kind of duality in managing a project, with that straightforward word from Rear-Admiral Grace Hopper: “You manage things, you lead people”.   

What about you?

Now, if you are keen to develop your ability to distinguish better between leader and manager postures, let me propose a very simple homework – in the office:

- In the coming week, take opportunities of typical project situations (project team meeting, deliverable review, change board, …) and try to observe which kind of posture other people adopt, and which impact it has on you. Is a colleague asking for inputs trusting others, or rather relying more on the procedure and hierarchical rules? Has a colleague tried to adapt to the style of communication or rather focused on analytical content? If you are comfortable with noting your observations, it could look like this:


Doing this will not only transform some rather boring meetings into a beautiful place to learn, but also enable you in a next stage to practice this observation with yourself!
- Observing yourself is a bit harder, because you need to enter into what psychologists (and coaches) call a metaposition - a kind of helicopter view where you are both viewer and part of the view. However, being able to detect what you do/have done is a catalyzer to your leadership awareness. So, take a few minutes after a meeting or an interview, and try to distinguish which posture(s) you have taken.
- You can optionally try the Blake & Mouton questionnaire, and see where that "locates" your posture in the famous grid of the two organizational psychologists (but be also careful about the results: a self-assessment is often biased).

Is it really that simple?

Of course, it would be too easy (even simplistic) if leadership and management would be characterized by a single “People / Process” dimension. But recognizing its existence is a pretty good starting point to feel what project leadership is – before answering the next question: why does a good project manager need also to be a project leader?